London Books: Monsieur Ka by Vesna Goldsworthy

published 2017

[Extract from the book:]

I wore my best – my only – cocktail gown. Made by Tante Julie as a parting gift on the eve of my departure for Bucharest, it was a replica of a Schiaparelli frock, light
enough to survive the dislocations that gave it a new audience for each infrequent outing. The Mediterranean sun could compete with it, subdue it even. In London, it glowed like a thousand-watt light bulb, shockingly pink against austerity tweed. Then there was the magic locked in a dozen precise cuts. My aunt was a mistress of her trade. She knew how to tame the silk, to make it flow and follow the skin without ever sticking to it.

comments The novelist Amanda Craig has long been a good friend to this blog and to me – always supportive and interested and full of ideas and suggestions. She is a most generous critic and reviewer of books as well as a writer. Last month I finally met her IRL for the first time – and now am looking forward to her next book (out this summer) even more than before. (You can find Lie of the Land and A Vicious Circle on the blog).
She is always ready to recommend other writers, and I completely understand her annoyance that Vesna Goldsworthy isn’t better known. I read Goldsworthy’s Gorsky – a modern-day rewrite of The Great Gatsby but much better than that sounds – and you can see my rave review here.

Amanda suggested I must read Monsieur Ka, and how right she was. Although both books are very cosmopolitan, and have a constant air of connections with all kinds of European mysteries, they are both very solidly London books, in keeping with my blog theme over the past week. Both of them sketch the city with great certainty and a light touch.

But this book has so much more to offer as well. It is another extraordinary idea, like
Gorsky. This time there is the makings of a lovely straight novel set in London in 1947: Albertine – a Jewish refugee married to a British soldier - gets a job as companion to an elderly Russian gentleman. He is the Monsieur Carr/Ka of the title, but then – as it goes – it turns out he is the son of Anna Karenina, heroine of the Tolstoy book.

This mixture of fiction and meta-fiction is just laid carefully into the book like writing on icing. I didn’t have the slightest problem with it, though every so often I had to slow down (the book is very compelling) to think about comparisons and reality and references to Anna K, and to other literature (the name Albertine, for example… )

Meanwhile Albertine goes about her days, conjuring up the most perfect picture of her life, of London, of what it would be like to be a young war bride, of the dark winter nights:
It was just past four, yet the lights were already on in many of the houses. Stained glass threw pastel illuminations onto the snow-covered gardens outside. I heard dogs barking as I went by, saw curtains twitching.
Monsieur Ka and his family become very important to her, and through them she has an entrée into a film being made of Anna Karenina. Her life is very uncertain, and so are her feelings. Goldsworthy creates a wholly real world, and combines a number of different strands absolutely superbly.

And, I stress again, does London so perfectly.
I sometimes walked all the way from Earl’s Court just to see the roses in bloom, to read their exotic names on black tags planted on stakes alongside the paths like little alien flowers. The streets of Paris, Bucharest and Alexandria were like sentences using the same grammar. They huddled inward against encroaching nature, whereas London opened up to it, allowed it to invade. London was a city created by people who didn’t like cities, I had concluded, who in their hearts preferred villages but with the convenience of urban life…

There were lawns in this square, benches and gravel paths under vast crowns of trees, nannies in beige uniforms pushing prams with huge, finely crafted wheels, office workers on the grass, taking their midday breaks, sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper in metal lunch boxes next to them, and young saleswomen, skirts pulled up high above the knee, sunning their legs in that eagerly joyful way only young Englishwomen do when the sun is out.
And then, Goldsworthy flat-out makes you believe that Anna Karenina’s son could have lived in London in the 1940s.
‘I don’t complain. The Carrs are quiet people,’ he said, then, after a brief pause, ‘My mother and her lover produced enough excitement for the whole of the nineteenth century. And the twentieth.’
I read a review of Monsieur Ka on Amazon, by Sue Kich, which said:
I frequently found myself – quite inexplicably - on the edge of tears. There is something fundamentally touching about the way this book is written, stitched through, as it is, with an underlying note of regret in its every word.
And that summed up my feelings perfectly.

More London books last week – by Caroline Crampton and Linda Grant.

In the early days of the blog I used this picture for Anna Karenina, and one of my dearest friends told me firmly that she wasn’t nearly beautiful enough. I think she’s wrong.

And I also liked two John Singer Sargent pictures for her:

I recently read a piece by the novelist Vladimir Nabokov in which he says that the first representation of a gay couple in standard literature comes in Anna Karenina – a pair of soldiers in Vronsky’s regiment.

The pink silk dress at the top is an actual Schiaparelli, though slightly too late, 1950, from Kristine. It also isn’t a cocktail dress. But needs must, once I found it I had to use it. (There is some disagreement online as to whether this dress is actually Schiaparelli or Balenciaga: I am making the most of the uncertainty.) The woman clutching a pillar is in pre-war Schiaparelli.

The woman on a rooftop is wearing austerity fashion, what Albertine presumably wore on ordinary days. Photo from the ever-wonderful Imperial War Museum collection.

The other important Schiaparelli dress in post-War London is, of course, the borrowed-and-lent dress in Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means – see my blogpost and version here.


  1. I absolutely love that description of the dress, Moira! So well done, and such fabulous choice of words! And again, here's a great look at London at the time, and I always appreciate that. And any author who can create a really emotional book without contrivance earns my respect.

    1. Indeed Margot, what a good description: 'emotional book without contrivance' is a great phrase, one I'll remember. And I liked this book for many reasons, but the clothes were splendid!

  2. Oh Moira,that third photo down has made me want to cry. I have an old photo of my mother, standing in exactly the same pose, with a similar hairstyle, and a similar dress, which she made herself (she was immensely proud of it apparently, but it was cheap material, and when washed the hem drooped). She was wearing a pair of very high-heeled, peep-toed, ankle-strap, navy, suede shoes - I remember them from my dressing-up box! Her photo was taken in the 1940s - probably during the war, but possibly just after, and almost certainly in London. She would have been about 18 I think. She always looked smart, and must have been quite stylish in her day, but now she has dementia and likes to wear the same outfit all the time.

    1. Oh that's lovely Christine, thank you for sharing that. I loved that photo already, she seemed so full of character, and I bet your Mum is the same. I love the way the women of that time made sure they were stylish without wasting resources... what we are trying to do again now.

  3. So happy you have discovered this wonderful novel at last. I love it (and as Anna Karenina is probably my favourite novel in the world, it had to be really good.). Beautiful descriptipons of the book and gorgeous photographs...I am myself interviewing Vesna Goldsworthy and Sofka Zinoviev (whose Putney, influenced by Lolita, is also superb and has a memorable silk dressing-gown that might interest fans of this blog) on April 28 for the Wimpole St salon.

    1. Thanks Amanda - so glad you reminded me of this book. I am sure I will re-read it in future. She does such a good job of creating a world. And thanks for extra info - I hadn't come across the Zinoviev book.

  4. I am assuming some familiarity with Anna Karenina would be useful to reading this book? I did read it, but years and years ago so remember no more than the bare outline of the story. And I do plan to reread it, I recently found my copy that was buried somewhere, but maybe not this year.

    1. It does help, but not essential. The Goldsworthy would be a great book to read after you have re-read Anna Karenina... it's a lot shorter!

  5. Another I can safely pass on thanks


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